The  Black Majority Churches and ecumenism


On 30 October as part of Black History Month the department is contributing to ‘The Black Majority Churches and Ecumenism’ [pdf flier here] – a public event at the New Testament Church of God Learning and Training Centre in Northampton. The event is hosted and chaired by the Revd. Phyllis Thompson of the NTCG. In the Q and A with Dr John Maiden below, Revd. Thompson discusses the history of relations between the historic mainline churches and the BMCs in Britain, and says more about this event.

How would you describe the interactions between local black majority churches and mainline congregations in Britain in the 1970s and before?

The interactions were tentative and fraught in the main due to ignorance, scepticism, disappointment, frustration, racism and rejection to mention a few of the reported experiences.  Some of the men and women who came to the UK during this time, came as migrants and missionaries. Oliver Lyseight, for example, founding admin Bishop of the New Testament Church of God and listed 3rd of 100 Black British Achievers, belongs to a denomination which is part of a global Pentecostal movement currently with over 8 million members in over 34,000 local congregations in more than 184 countries around the world ( Determined to sustain his faith in the midst of the dissatisfaction and discontent, Oliver Lyseight – like many others – established branch congregations of their Pentecostal denominations in the UK. Given the sociopolitical issues mentioned earlier, the so called ‘black majority churches’ emerged and with this history the critical need for meaningful and sincere dialogue to address the fears, prejudice, and injustice of racial discrimination and identify ways in which the ‘historic churches and the so called ‘black majority churches’ could dialogue and find a voice to bring healing amongst its constituency, and together present the Christian message to the wider community.

You were involved in a project called Zebra in North East London from the late 1970s. What was Zebra and what was its approach to developing local relationships between BMCs and mainlines?

The Zebra project, as Deryck Collingwood, Chairman of the London N. E. District of the Methodist Church, said at the time, ‘was born out of disappointment.’ Ira Brooks, a leading New Testament Church of God Minister speaking on behalf of the Zebra Project, said ‘I have watched the painful success of Zebra from inside – having worked as a member of its steering committee for some years… people from various walks of life and professions are becoming more and more aware of it as a resource of information and expertise, especially within the delicate and difficult matters of racial harmony that are available for the use of blending and strengthening Britain’s multi-faith/cultural society for the 21st century.’ Insightful dialogue with the aim to encourage and support people of different backgrounds to work together to bring about racial justice was central to the  Zebra Project.

The public event on 30 October will explore some of this ecumenical history, and you will be chairing a discussion. How is this history, and the issues it raises, relevant to the churches in Britain today?

Clearly there is much to celebrate about the relationship between the ‘black majority churches’ and the ‘historic churches’ – this is evidenced, for example, by the  make-up of the leadership and work of Churches Together in England.

However, there is still a great deal to be done. An understanding of and engagement with the historical context  of the UK Churches should be a must for all church leaders who are keen to build on the wisdom of hindsight.

What do you think has been the impact of black majority churches on Christianity in Britain since Windrush?

The black majority Churches have made and continue to make significant contribution to the British religious landscape and the Christian witness in particular. Karen Gibson and her Kingdom Choir’s performance at the Royal wedding on the world’s stage is a good example, as are the many other Pentecostal Christians of African/Caribbean background who are making tremendous contribution via the so called seven spheres of influence as itemised by Loren Cunningham: Family, religion/church, Education, Government, Media, Celebration (Arts, Entertainment and Sports) and Economics(Business, Science, and technology).

The event costs £5, including lunch and refreshments. To book, email

3 Minute Theories | Imagined Communities, with Stefanie Sinclair

We’re back! In bang-on three minutes, Stefanie Sinclair tells us about Benedict Anderson’s theory of Imagined Communities, in which groups gather around ideas and identities even when separated geographically. Originally coined for nationalism studies, the concept has great significance for other fields, including Religious Studies.

What Imagined COmmunities are you part of? Let us know in the comments!

Public Talk | The Black Majority Churches and Ecumenicism

John Maiden will be speaking at a public event on October 30th in Northampton, to recognise Black History Month, hosted by the New Testament Church of God, supported by the Religious Studies department at the Open University and the Religious Archives Group.

The event will explore historical and contemporary perspectives on the Black Majority Churches in the UK and ecumenism, including a historical talk by John Maiden entitled ‘“Partnership not paternalism”: the Black Majority Churches and Ecumenism’. This will be followed by a time for reflection and discussion chaired by the Revd. Phyllis Thompson (New Testament Church of God). There will also be an opportunity to visit the NTCG Heritage Centre.

The event costs £5, including lunch and refreshments. To book, or for more details, please contact Mrs Edris Buchanan-Edwards at by 19 October.

Friedrich A. Hayek, Max Weber and the Anthropocene

By Paul-François Tremlett

In a 2007 essay titled ‘Prophecy and the Near Future’, Jane Guyer developed a series of observations about how evangelical Christians and neoliberals conceive of time. She concluded that for both, the near future has disappeared. Action for the future is postponed indefinitely, premised upon an overwhelming sense of individual fallibility in the face of an inscrutable even unknowable world. In this short post, I bring Hayek and Weber together again to think about time but with regard to climate change, capitalism, individualism and Protestantism.

Friedrich A. Hayek’s concerns are not merely those of an economist: he is a social theorist and a philosopher, seeking to establish “true” individualism as a theory of society (1949: 6). He contrasts a fallible individual against the state. For Hayek, it is better for individuals to pursue their albeit narrow, private interests – the things that they can know – than surrender those interests and that knowledge to the plans of some seemingly beneficent, all-knowing state. Order and freedom are secured, according to Hayek, when individuals are free to pursue their interests and not when some arrogant collective body decides what it cannot know namely, the best interests of all. The scope of individual action described by Hayek is ultimately circumscribed by the occult forces of the market that allegedly translates every small decision-action into a larger and more perfect social formation, towards which “humility” (1949: 32) is, for Hayek, the most appropriate attitude.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism concerns the psychological effects of ‘salvation anxiety’ on action. The Protestant belief in predestination generates a sense of human fallibility and powerlessness as to what can be known about God’s will but also about the wider world, precipitating psychological stress and a narrowing of attention to proximate material interests as proxies for private, spiritual ones. Weber concludes with a pessimistic warning as to the sustainability of the Protestant-capitalist formation his book describes: it will last “until the last ton of fossilised fuel is burnt” (2002: 123) he suggests, starkly.

The trouble with climate change – putting aside its potential for our extinction – is that it precisely requires individuals to cease only being concerned with their own private interests and to recognize that, at least when it comes to climate, there really is something beyond the fallible human individual – something that might be called science or the scientific community – that, galvanised by national and international institutions, really does have the necessary knowledge to compel us to act not selfishly but sociologically. I wager that, if humans do survive the impending climate crisis, Protestantism, individualism and capitalism won’t survive with them.

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Religious Studies and studying? Restraint and Celebration

Religious festivals involve a range of social practices. From having an annual drink with acquaintances before Christmas, office parties, spending money on gifts and eating a weeks’ worth of food in a day, and ideally fitting in all that study, juggling demands can be difficult. In this session, we think about what these religious festivals might add, and how restraint during Lent or Ramadan, followed by festivities, are different to things like dry January.

But what does this have to do with studying? Taking ideas of restraint and celebration and applying those to study, Graham Harvey and Paul-Francois Tremlett give you some space to think about potential gains vs time, acknowledging success, and when discipline can be useful in your studies.

From Student Hub Live

Scottish Nationalism “similar to religion”, says Judge

By David G. Robertson

An interesting story appeared in the Herald last week that illuminates some interesting features of the contemporary conversation about religion.

Chris McEleny was an electrician at the Ministry of Defense site in Beith, Inverclyde, and the SNP group leader on Inverclyde Council. In 2016, he announced he would be running as a candidate to become deputy leader of the SNP. He was then suspended by the MoD, and had his security clearance revoked. National security officials came to his home and asked him about his mental health, social media activity and pro-independence stance. McEleny resigned and pursued a discrimination case against the MoD, arguing that he had been fired because of his belief in independence.

But to do so, he had to argue that independence was a “philosophical belief”, and therefore a “protected characteristic” under the 2010 Equality Act. Legal precedent said that to fall under this category, his belief had to be “genuinely held”, involve “moral and ethical conviction” and relate to “weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour”.

The judge ruled in his favour – impressive given that McEleny defended himself against the UK Government. In summing up, the judge said “The claimant has persuaded me that his belief in Scottish independence has a sufficiently similar cogency to a religious belief… to qualify as a philosophical belief.”

This preliminary ruling will now go forward to a full hearing, so expect to hear more about it in future. For now, I want to point out a few interesting points about how “religion” and “belief” are mobilised here.

Religion is about “genuinely held” beliefs. This could be problematic. Given that half the Jews in Israel are atheist, Scottish law would have to deny them any religious protection under this logic. Many forms of Buddhism would deny that belief was involved at all. What about sincerely held beliefs about female circumcision or witchcraft? What would we make about the many who identify as a religion but do not follow all of the rules and tenets of that religion? And if I have been raised in a religion and taken on its norms, how “genuinely held” are those beliefs? How do we test the “genuineness” of a belief? If it is not judged ‘genuine’, am I therefore lying?

Religion is about morality, and the “weighty” questions of life. Is it? Wouldn’t that make environmentalism or animal rights or the Geneva Convention religious? What counts as “weighty”? Who decides?

Religions are “cogent”. While the representatives of various traditions have a vested interest in presenting religions as internally consistent and sharing fundamental ideas, this is not true and never has been. [Try our Exploring Religions module for lots of examples].

“Belief” is never defined. Seems pedantic, perhaps, but it matters a great deal – and the fact that we all assume we know what “belief” means should start alarm bells ringing. The idea that we have a series of belief ‘statements’ in our minds that we refer to when we act is clearly untrue; we act before thought, we hold contradictory beliefs, we hold multiple beliefs at the same time, we don’t do what we think, and so on. Is my love for my wife a belief? What about that the sun will rise in the morning, or that the switch will make a light go on?

No; what is going on here is an appeal to Protestant ideas about “faith”. Religious beliefs are understood as a special kind of belief that, because it comes from God, must be protected from criticism from merely “rational” beliefs.

Religions deserve protection, but political or other beliefs do not. Because it is comparable to a religion, this nationalism needs protected by the law. But why should religion be uniquely protected? Judging from the panel on Religion in the Law at our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in February [soon to be a special issue of Implicit Religion], the issue at present seems to be mostly concerned with protecting minority groups, particularly immigrants, but problems arise as the model used is based on European Protestant Christianity. The law moves slowly, but in my experience, the legal system is willing, even keen, to listen.

Most comment on this case will revolve around the question of whether nationalism is or is not a religion, but this is really missing the point. Cases like these reveal the fault lines in how the category religion is understood in public discourse. Legal proceedings are an underused resource for analysing the public discourse on religion, and an especially important one, as it has real effects on people. My interest in religion has always been based in a fascination with the relationship between ideas and communities of people, and the law is the point where these ideas become inscribed in societies. If we as scholars are serious about wanting to be heard by the broader public, this might be a good place to focus our attention.

Extraordinary Rituals | New BBC co-production

17th August 2018 at 9.00pm sees the first episode of Extraordinary Rituals, a new OU/BBC co-production on BBC 2. This series of three documentaries explores the spectacular and emotional world of rituals, and the Academic Consultant was our own Graham Harvey.

In Indonesia the Torajans put on the most elaborate funerals on Earth to secure their loved ones a place in the afterlife, while in Japan new hi-tech cemeteries store people’s ashes behind glowing neon plaques. In Italy, a passionate bareback horserace called the Palio is the ritual which keeps fierce rivalries between the districts of Siena in check. While in Malaysia, pilgrims carry massive burdens and their bodies are pierced to show their extreme devotion to the Hindu god of war.

Rituals can inspire us, but to stay relevant they must also adapt to our modern lives. In China, 21st century teenagers sing ancient love songs in a 7th century dating ritual, and follow it up by text. In Senegal, where wrestling has become the top sport, fighters still use amulets, potions and tribal dances to give them the edge in the arena.

Rituals are woven into the survival story of humanity. Among the Inuit in Greenland a boy’s rite of passage to become a hunter still demands he must hunt a seal on the sea ice. It’s a ritual of survival, but for those families that follow tradition, it’s also key to their identity. Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving on Earth, using fire ceremonies to shape the landscape over 50,000 years. Passed down from the ancestors, the Dow fire ceremony teaches the next generation how fire brings fertility to the landscape. Today, science has caught up – ancestral knowledge and modern technology has combined, as Aboriginal rangers protect the land by creating vast firebreaks from helicopters.

We will continue to invent new rituals, from street crews practising parkour in Gaza, to the building of a Temple at Burning Man in USA, where people leave their painful mementos before it’s burnt down as a ritual of release. These rituals could become the traditions of the future, alongside ancient ceremonies for modern times, to help us to make sense of our human experience

There’s a bunch of material at Openlearn, the OU’s free learning website, including short videos from the origins festival and several pieces on ritual by Graham Harvey. A breakdown of the episodes follows.

Ep1: Rituals – Cycle of Life | The key rituals on our journey from birth, to marriage and death. These are universal, yet we perform them in extremely different ways around the world. Rituals give us meaning, and they bind us together for the most extreme moments in the circle of life.

 Ep2: Rituals – Great Gatherings | Great Gatherings looks at rituals that bring us together in huge numbers, keep communities alive and reinforce our identity by joining the crowd. For billions of people, shared ritual experiences still help us to find where we belong and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

Ep3: Rituals – Changing World | This episode explores how rituals adapt in our changing world. How do ancient ceremonies stay relevant and when do we invent new rituals to answer our needs.

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

Who are the new publics for the work we do in Religious Studies?

Jonathan Tuckett of the Religious Studies Project attended our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives conference in February, armed with an iPhone. Drawing from the themes of the conference, he came up with some (difficult) questions to ask the attendees – including our students Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson, and Lecturers Marion Bowman, David Robertson and Suzanne Newcombe.

If you missed it, watch part 1 here.

Blowing the Spirit: the tradition of brass band performances at funerals in Poland.

Maciej Kierzkowski, PhD Candidate, Music

My initial interest in brass bands was sparked randomly while collecting materials to research the past of my family. I learned that my grandfather’s brother was buried without a priest, and that during his secular funeral a glassworks brass band from a nearby village performed the ceremonial functions. As well as throwing light upon my family’s history, this information made me realize the importance of the brass band in contemporary Polish culture. The main question that appeared in my mind was, how did the funeral of my ancestor look (and sound), and what particular role did the brass band play in it? The opportunity to address this question appeared soon (in 2003) while conducting research for my Masters’ thesis on the brass bands of the Mazovia region in central Poland.

This blog entry presents the original field recording of the funeral that was made in situ in Godzianów village in Mazovia region in Central Poland. It was performed by Orkiestra Dęta OSP Godzianów (the Godzianow Voluntary Fireman Brigade Brass Band), and the deceased was one of its former bandsmen. The following is translated from my original field-work notes as an outsider [click the player below to follow along with the recording – numbers in brackets refer to timings in the recording]:

[00’00] ‘Before starting the funeral ceremony, members of the band and other participants of the ritual gather in the yard in front of the house of the deceased. Musicians dressed in fireman uniforms come to the site in fire trucks. Another truck brings in other firemen that are not musicians. The instrumental configuration of the band includes: 1 clarinet in Bb, 3 alto saxophones in Eb, 2 tenor saxophones in Bb, 1 trumpet in Bb, 1 bass saxhorn in Eb, 1 baritone saxhorn in Bb,1 tenor saxhorn in Bb,1 bass drum.

[00’50] The first musical piece performed by the band is a funeral march that is played during the elevation of the coffin from the house of the deceased. At that time, alarm sirens and emergency lights of fire trucks are activated.

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Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson. Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Just out of reach: magic, opacity, and unknowability

Theodoros Kyriakides and Richard Irvine. 

Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson (above). Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Eynhallow frank, Eynhallow free
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the sea
A roaring roost on every side
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the tide

– traditional Orkney rhyme

“But what do you mean by magic?” There’s a long pause in the conversation; the anthropologist wonders whether they’ve asked the wrong question. “Well I suppose I mean… well, magic… like Eynhallow.” To those familiar with Orkney, this small ‘holy island’ is rich in stories: once upon a time a coming-and-going island, rising from the sea only to disappear, until it was won over from the shape-shifting finfolk by the use of holy salt. Still the island retains an uncanny quality: in 1990 two people were said to have disappeared into thin air after 88 were counted off an excursion ferry to the uninhabited island and only 86 were counted back on.

But it is not only the stories surrounding Eynhallow that make it a figure of magic. It is also the sense of it being simultaneously proximate, yet remote. It looms near, just between Rousay and the Orkney Mainland; and yet, surrounded by the elemental forces of the “roaring roost” – the riptides rushing past, the meeting point of the great energies of the Atlantic and the North Sea – it seems inaccessible. It fits perfectly with another explanation of the qualities of magic offered during conversation in Orkney: “a sense of wonder… but just out of reach”.

The question “What do you mean by magic?” is not a straightforward one. In fact, it is a question which can easily be turned back onto the anthropologist working on the topic. If you are someone just going about your daily routine, this is of course a very valid response to someone trying to research your beliefs and practices. Curiously enough, the fact that magic is such an open category makes this a rich question for our research in Nicosia and Orkney. Magic means different things for different people: magic for some might denote spells. For others, it is a quality of the landscape. For others, psychic readings. For others, Harry Potter movies. In other words, the question “what do you mean by magic”, far from suggesting that ‘magic’ is an irrelevance, indicates the polysemy – the rich and varied range of meaning – this word has acquired in modernity.

At the same time, this question reveals the enigmatic stance people adopt in the presence of the suggestion of magic: it is, in this sense, a topic “just out of reach”, surrounded by opacity and uncertainty. In The Empty Seashell, an ethnography of witchcraft in Indonesia, Nils Bubandt writes that “the fundamental unknowability of the other” often acts as a prerequisite to the manifestation or suspicion of witchcraft. Witchcraft is hence emergent from the fact that we cannot ‘see through’ the intentions of others. On the one hand, such witchcraft is indented in the workings of a society: it proceeds through specific instances, practices, rituals and social structures. On the other hand, the forms of magic which emerge within our fieldwork showcase how magic in contemporary societies takes multiple forms, reflecting the pluralism of beliefs and habits.

Here, we encounter a different kind of “unknowability” to once again use Bubandt’s term of choice. To return to Orkney, on the island of Rousay ideas of ‘magic’ in the landscape are attested to by the many stories which surround the Neolithic chambered cairns and standing stones. The folklore attached to these places is rich and well recorded. Yet, importantly, many layers of unknowing intervene in any given ‘encounter’ with the storied landscape: Protestant Christian attempts to rid the populace of superstition; population displacement due to clearance and emigration; population change due to incomers from beyond Orkney; secularisation. None of these strips the landscape of its potency, but each contributes to its sense of being ‘out of reach’.

Working back through these layers to understand the occluded landscape seems to generate new forms of interaction: for example, given the closure of the island’s kirks and the decline of island churchgoing, it is not altogether surprising that an archaeological site should become the setting for an island wedding rather than the kirk. Meanwhile, in recent decades modern standing stones have joined their ancient counterparts. The work involved in quarrying and erecting such stones makes this by no means a flippant undertaking, though neither is it a phenomenon that in all cases can be taken too seriously. Modern stones might be said to be “watching over us, helping us as they’ve always done”, but in another case might be said to have been erected more playfully, a landmark to direct tourists to what was built as a holiday home.

So, expanding on Bubandt’s idea of unknowability, the opacity of magic in modernity does not only mean that one is not sure of others’ intentions – it can also imply that people are never too sure of what magic might mean for them, or even if they ‘believe’ in it. Take the example of the Cypriot non-believer who still puts faith in his or her lucky pendant under situations of play. Or, the example of someone who does not attend church but finds herself reciting a trio of prayers under a certain situation of distress (one for each member of the Holy Trinity). On such occasions, pendant and prayer are both granted a semblance of automatic efficacy which Marcel Mauss identified as a central tenet of magical belief.

Why do people entertain such halfhearted beliefs if they don’t really believe in the efficacy of magic? When we ask this question, we notice that the people we talk to approach the suggestion of magic, much like their belief in it, in indirect manner. In Cyprus, many do not explicitly believe in magic, but nevertheless find that magic often occupies part of daily stories and rumours they hear, and also of childhood memories. We hence often find that we are conducting a kind of archaeology of magical beliefs, working through strata of unknowing. Magic is, nowadays, concealed under several temporal layers of personal and collective amnesia, but also recollection. We also find, however, that such social conditions don’t necessarily dilute the notion of magic amid increasing narratives and processes of unbelief and secularism, but rather grant it a vague semblance of autonomy and unpredictability. In such sense, conditions of social, political and financial uncertainty – characteristic of contemporary societies – can be understood as not erasing but rather as producing (or maybe reproducing) particular forms of modern magic. It is a world where something is left partially ungrasped and out of reach, just enough for it to keep returning.